The Teacher and Student Relationship within Martial Arts

A couple of posts ago I talked about manners, a topic of importance to me. Now, I’d like to talk about the teacher and student relationship within martial arts. This relationship is very misunderstood by non-martial artists and even by a lot of students and instructors. As an instructor it is my job to transfer my knowledge to my students in the most efficient and safe way possible. That’s it. It’s the students job to learn the material as completely and safely as possible. That’s it.

So why is this relationship so different from that of a high school teacher and his student, or a soccer coach and his player, or a parent and his child? The roots of this can be traced to the material that is being taught. Martial arts are potentially dangerous to practice and the knowledge the students gain can be used, even if not intentionally, to seriously hurt another person. It is therefore very important that a student, without question, follows their instructor’s commands and follows them immediately. If the student doesn’t, he/she or their partner could end up seriously injured. Imagine that two students are practicing a newly learned combination and in the process of executing one of the motions it is apparent to the instructor that it is being done incorrectly. The instructor immediately tells the students to stop. If the correct relationship exists between the instructor and his students, they will both immediately stop without question. If that relationship doesn’t exist one or both of the students might have continued the combination and then not seeing the potential danger, one or more of the students could have gotten seriously injured.

I have said numerous times to my students that if one of my instructors asked me to jump off a bridge I would without hesitation and absolutely without any fear. How is that possible? Why would I be willing to throw myself off a bridge? I love BASE jumping of course. No, joking aside, I completely trust my instructors. I know that none of them would ever ask me to do anything that would seriously injure me. That’s why I would jump off the bridge with no fear, because I know, without question, that I wouldn’t get hurt by jumping. How is that possible? How can I not get hurt? I have no idea, but somehow I would be safe.

I have learned martial arts from a lot of people, that in no way makes them all my instructors. I am very selective as to the people I consider my instructors. I don’t use that title lightly, because after all I’m willing to do anything they asked of me. After almost 40 years of taking martial arts there are only 4 individuals I consider my instructors (and one of them isn’t even a martial artist anymore). I have been very lucky to have learned from a large group of very talented individuals but other than those 4 none of them made the transition in my mind to “instructor.” So what causes an individual to make this transition? A lot of factors: how they interact with other instructors, with students, their ability to teach, their ability to do the techniques themselves or at least demonstrate a good mental understanding of how the techniques should be performed, how they act outside of the school, etc, etc, etc. The list just goes on and on and on.

Over 15 years ago I came up with one unifying factor that takes all of those other factors into account. I call it the “float” factor (its how far they float off the ground in my mind). Every time someone I’m learning from does something positive, their float factor increases. Every time they do something negative, their float factor decreases. Some of the instructor’s actions can easily be assigned into one of these two groups, however for the most part it is up to the individual student to assign the group to the action. These ups and downs are not equal. For me, it takes four or five positives to equal one negative, and that’s only for a small negative. Because in my mind a “large” negative is unacceptable and I would stop learning from anyone that had one of those.

So how does someone who is teaching me become my “instructor?”. They always have to be “floating.” There is never an excuse for any true martial art instructor not to be. I realize that even a great instructor will have some negatives but the positives will drastically outnumber them. From the day I met them all four of my “instructors” have never not floated.

A little over ten years ago I was having this discussion with a group of my black belts. They all insisted that I “floated” for all of them and therefore implied that they would “jump off a bridge” for me if I asked them to. Believe me, I have no delusions that I “float” for all my students. In fact, knowing fist hand of all my flaws, I’d be surprised if I really “float” of any of my students. I told them all this and they very politely told me that I was crazy. So I sent them all into a room off the training floor and closed the door. I told them to wait and that I would return momentarily. A couple of minutes later I returned with a rope and a blindfold. I told the black belts that I was going to test each of them to see whether or not I truly “float” for them. I then proceeded to blindfold one of them and tie his hands behind his back. The black belt was then led out onto the training floor. My school’s floor, at that time, was carpet on top of cement (in other words – very hard). I told him that he had to fall forward onto the ground from a standing position and that he could not bend his knees. He was told that if he bent his knees, and they touched the ground before his chest hit the floor, that he failed.  He was faced with the “jumping off the bridge” situation. To this black belt’s mind, it was impossible for him not to get hurt, he just had to trust me. To make things worse, I continued to talk to him from a point to his rear, so that he knew that I wasn’t going to catch him.

Unbeknownst to the black belts I had moved a pile of very soft mats (thicker and softer than a mattress) onto the training floor before I brought the first one of them out. One at a time I would bring them out and position each of them in front of this stack before I told them what to do. So there was no way they would get hurt when they fell. I had expected some of them to pass and some of them to fail and my expectation was correct. I didn’t do the test to inflate or deflate my ego, I did it for my black belts. Until you are placed in that “no win” situation you truly don’t know how you would react.  Some of the black bets simply sat there in disbelief not understanding how they could have failed and some sat there is disbelief not understanding how they could have passed. Each and every one of them learned something about themselves that day.

So, would you pass this test if your instructor gave it to you?  If you answer “no”, its time to ask yourself, “why wouldn’t I.”  Your answer should provide you with a lot to think about.

by Master Sean Pearson

Written by

Throughout his career, in an effort to become a truly well-rounded martial artist in both practice and philosophy, Master Pearson has studied a wide variety of martial arts: Taekwondo, Kali, Kyudo, Iaido, Aikido, Judo, Jodo, Bando and Tai Chi. He holds dan rankings in six of these arts and master ranks in three of them. To this same end he has studied and achieved national recognition as a wilderness survival instructor, a certified hypnotherapist, and a lecturer in Neuro Linguistic Psychology.

1 comment

What do you think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: